Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Bird Photography: Beyond Just the Subject

Words by RJ Roush

Over the last three and a half months I’ve spent on the Southeast Farallon Islands I have had countless opportunities to take amazing photographs and have done my best to take advantage of all of them. With all life and death on the island I feel like I could spend an entire season on SEFI just photographing all that happens. I really do feel privileged to have had such an experience. I am by no means a professional photographer; I consider myself an eager-to-improve novice. Anyway, I’ve gathered enough experience in my 7 years to know that I have a lot more to learn when it comes to photography, but what I do know I would like to share.
Now, before I go into the meat of this article, I want to start with a note about the gear I use. It’s true that the photograph is more the photographer than the camera they’re using, but the lenses and camera body are still crucially important. My best advice is to use what you know well. The less time you spend fiddling with settings and the more time you spend shooting. I use a few different lenses that range anywhere from 10 to 300mm, but I will just go ahead and say that my 70-300mm telephoto lens was one of the best investments I could have made toward my outdoor photography. It allows me to bring my subjects (most often birds) close so that their beauty can be admired without them being disturbed by my presence.
This is a photo where the subject is really all that’s going on in the picture. A shot of three Western Gull chicks, two hatched a day or two ago and the third just taking in its first breaths of fresh air. Taken May 31, 2013 in K-plot.
Let’s talk about the subjects. Like I said earlier, I am a bit biased towards photographing birds, so that is what I will focus on. Often times, it is the subject that will make or break the photo, and one of the easiest ways to ruin a photo is to have you’re subject out-of-focus. It can be a crushing experience to find out that out of the 100+ frames you just shot, only 2 were in focus. That’s why when shooting birds, I only use manual focus on my lenses. I often find that my eyes are more accurate and faster to react than the autofocus on my lenses; I know the subject that I want to shoot much better than the camera’s AF does. Using MF has helped me get some amazing pictures that could have otherwise been missed if I had waited for the lenses AF to pick up my desired subject.
This Wilson’s Warbler was hopping about in the Monterey Pine, April 26th, 2013. Had I used AF instead of MF, I may have missed the crisp contrast in the WIWA’s cap and head.
The photo above is also an example of using the foreground and background to lead the eyes to the nice bright Wilson’s Warbler near the center of the frame. This photo uses the out of focus region to bring the eyes straight to the subject.
It seems like one topic that is often overlooked in wildlife photography is the framing of the subject. Sometimes you’re just too focused in on the subject to even think about how it is placed in the frame of your image. The earlier photo of the gull chicks is an example of where the subject is all I wanted my audience looking at, so I made it dead center and had it take up the entire frame. Another strategy is where you put your subject slightly offset from the center and you use what’s in the foreground or background of the image to bring the viewer’s eyes toward the subject. When putting the subject out of the center, it shifts the “weight” of the photo to one side or the other, so it is important pay attention and balance it out. You can balance a photo with the use of light and dark colors or different color tones on different parts of the photograph. In the Wilson’s Warbler photo, I kept the subject slightly to the left of center to keep the photo a little more dynamic, as if the warbler was photographed right before it was going to jump to the right side of the photo. The lighter green on the right helps to balance out the dark tree branches on the left.
“The Anonymous Flycatcher” is what I like to call this one. This photo has the weight slightly shifted to the right of center due to the silhouetted subject being there and the black branches. Taken May 2, 2013 in the Cypress Tree next to the PRBO house.
In the photo above, the eyes are drawn toward the subject immediately due to the extreme contrast between the background and foreground. The “heavy” black is kept out of center and balanced out with the lighter background taking up the majority of the photo. The vignette of the tree branches around the edge of the photo also help to balance the light and dark in the photo and keep the eye towards the center of the frame.
Another important thing to consider while shooting is the background that your subject will be set in. The
background can turn a good photo into a great one by adding greater depth to the scene you’re capturing. Below is a crisp photo of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, posing on a dying shrub. This ended being one of my favorite photos of the season because of the background. The bright blooming Farallon Weed (Lasthenia maritime) makes for a vibrant background that nearly overloads the senses. I think the contrast between the drab plumage of the flycatcher and the brightness of the blossoms is what makes me enjoy it most.
One of my favorites of the season, a visiting Olive-sided Flycatcher on April 26th, 2013
Another note on background: sometimes you don’t really need one. A plain black or white background can give a photo a very intense look and will really make your subject stand out.
A pair of stern eyes and a solid black background make for one very serious Burrowing Owl. Seen Aprill 11th, 2013 in a crevice under the Corm Blind.
And before I sign off, I wanted to mention the use of black and white and other effects. B&W is what I learned first so it is very fond to me, and yet most of the time I shoot wildlife in color. A lot of the time, the color is one of the most alluring parts of the subject you’re photographing, but every once and awhile it can be distracting. Take the photo of Brandt’s Cormorants below. I was originally shooting in color until I noticed an annoying splash of color in the background that was taking the focus away from the dark gray corm chicks and their parent. So, I switched to black and white on my camera for the rest of the shots and was much happier with how they all turned out. Black and white also allows you to bring attention to detail in structure, which can be quite a treat if you’re shooting macro shots of birds.
Black and white, and other tones like sepia, can help bring attention to your subject. In the cormorant photo, the black heads of the birds stand out quite nicely against the lighter background, whereas if the photo were in color they would be competing against a strangely colored object in the background.
So, that’s what I have to share. I hope it helps out some of you. If you’re at all interested, feel free to view some of my other photography at my blog (RJ Roush Photography) or my flickr. Feel free to ask any questions and lend any criticism; remember: I’m still very much learning myself!